"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Monday, December 19, 2016

Is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” a hymn or a carol? I searched the Internet for the distinction and ended up even more confused. For example:

Hymns are traditional poems which have been taken from the Book of Psalms. They have been around for 100s of years and are sung by congregations while worshipping God in public. Carols, on the other hand, are festive songs. They are generally religious. [Quoted from http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/religion-miscellaneous/difference-between-carol-and-hymns/]

 Quick tip: One is sacred, the other secular. . . . Hymns are songs in praise of God and thus have a suitably portentous note about them. . . . Carols embody [secularism]. [Quoted from The Economic Times, December 23, 2012.]

Neither of these definitions works for me. Although all hymns are scriptural, not all of them come from the Book of Psalms. And although there are secular Christmas carols, many have a strong sacred component. I also found sites stating that hymns are solemn while carols are joyful, but that isn’t universally true, either.

So my best guess is that “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a carol rather than a hymn. The setting relates to current events rather than to Biblical ones, although it does have a strong Christian message in its final stanza. It doesn’t really matter what I call it, though. What matters are the words and what they convey.

As an aside, Longfellow titled it “Christmas Bells.” John Baptiste Calkin used the first line as the title when he set the poem to music in 1872. Calkin also used only five of the seven stanzas, dropping the two that referred to the Civil War.

The Internet is in conflict about when Longfellow wrote this poem, although most sites date it as either 1863 or 1864. The Civil war was raging, and Longfellow was grieving for his second wife, Fanny. Their older son, Charles, had enlisted in the Union army against his father’s wishes and was twice wounded, although he survived. The country itself was going through a very dark period in its history. So Longfellow had reason to despair.

And yet the final stanza of Longfellow’s poem says in ringing tones, “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail.” That’s a message of hope rather than despair.

Here is Longfellow’s poem as he wrote it.

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

May you experience that peace and good will this Christmas.


The picture at the head of this post is from a painting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was done by his younger son, Ernest Longfellow, in 1886. It is in the public domain because of its age.

No comments:

Post a Comment